Navajo Windfall

Uranium companies anticipate tomorrow’s profits, while yesterday’s workers await compensation

  • Uranium mining in the 1950s brought new prosperity -- and new health problems -- to Navajos. Navajo miners push a fully loaded cart of uranium ore along a cliffside track

    Northern Arizona University Cline Library, Special Collections and Archives, Tad Nichols Collection and Fronske Studio
  • Utco Uranium Corp miners near Cameron, Arizona

    Northern Arizona University Cline Library, Special Collections and Archives, Tad Nichols Collection and Fronske Studio
  • Miner working underground

    Northern Arizona University Cline Library, Special Collections and Archives, Tad Nichols Collection and Fronske Studio
  • Miner at work at a northern Arizona mine

    Northern Arizona University Cline Library, Special Collections and Archives, Tad Nichols Collection and Fronske Studio

Note: this story is part of a package of articles in this issue about the West's resurgent uranium economy.

"There were lights, like carnival lights, all over the mesas from the companies doing their explorations," says Rita Capitan, a diminutive, soft-spoken Navajo woman who introduces herself as a member of the Sagebrush and Towering House clans. During the uranium boom of the 1970s, she and her husband, Mitchell, were still in high school. "They just walked all over us, and then, when the price of uranium went down — like ants that come and go all of a sudden — they were all gone the next day."

For more than 30 years, beginning in 1950, the uranium industry colonized the 17 million-acre reservation, which stretches across northern Arizona into Utah and New Mexico. Thousands of Navajos worked in the mines and mills, breathing radioactive dust. Today, many of those workers suffer from lung cancer and respiratory diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis. Uranium, in Navajo lore, has been added to the list of sleeping giants that shouldn’t be disturbed.

So when, nearly 20 years ago, a small mining company proposed revitalizing the uranium industry on the reservation, Navajo tribal members and officials fought the idea at every turn. Last April, in a last-ditch attempt to keep the industry out, the Navajo Nation banned all uranium mining on the reservation.

But it may not matter: Hydro Resources Inc., with the endorsement of the federal U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is poised to open four uranium mines — three of them on Navajo land — near Crownpoint and Church Rock, about an hour’s drive from Gallup. And with uranium prices soaring, other companies have their eyes on the reservation’s roughly 100 million pounds of uranium deposits. They’re keeping close tabs on this fight between the tribe and the federal government, waiting to see whose law really reigns in Indian Country.

With claims being staked on uranium properties from Wyoming to New Mexico, the implications of this battle’s outcome could spread across the West. "This is a test case for (mining companies)," says Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which represents activists who oppose the mines. "Can they push around the community?"

A hard fight

Hydro Resources’ proposal is for "in situ" leach mining, in which miners inject water underground and use chemicals ranging from bicarbonate of soda to hydrochloric acid to leach out the ore, rather than tunneling into the earth to reach it as they did in the past. The uranium is then removed from the resulting sludge, and the water returned to the underground aquifer. This process is much safer and means there’s little danger that workers will develop the kind of diseases that sickened them in droves during the last boom. "Look, with underground mining, you’re moving tons of rock," says Tom Ehrlich, chief financial officer of Uranium Resources Inc., the parent company of Hydro Resources. "Just think about what you’re moving and then sending to the mill. With solution mining, you’re moving water."

That’s exactly what worries Navajo activists like Mitchell Capitan, who worked for Mobil Oil on an in situ pilot project in the 1980s. In situ mining’s effects on groundwater remain dubious at best: In southeastern Texas, for example, residents say the Kingsville Dome and Rosita in situ plants have contaminated private wells. But because no groundwater or well data exists from before the facility’s construction, the claims can’t be verified. The Beverly Mine in Australia has had both above- and below-ground leaks, including one spill of 15,000 gallons of sulfuric acid, radioactive liquids and salty water. At the Highland mine in Wyoming, spills containing uranium have ranged from just a few gallons to more than 5,000.

This checkered history, combined with the fact that the in situ proposal would draw from uranium deposits beneath the local drinking water aquifer, inspired the Capitans to found Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) from their Crownpoint home in 1994. Needing help, they contacted Chris Shuey, with the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Council.

"We’ve spent well over $2 million fighting this," says a fast-talking Shuey. The six-shelf bookcase in the dingy office groans with three-ring binders; there are piles of court briefs, health studies, groundwater models and federal nuclear regulations everywhere. The group has hired attorneys, monitored radiation and air quality at uranium sites on the reservation, and sued New Mexico to tighten its uranium groundwater standard.

Last April, the activists received official support: In a 63 to 19 vote, the tribal council passed the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005, banning uranium mining and milling on the reservation. President Joe Shirley Jr. even issued an executive order last fall prohibiting tribal members from negotiating with uranium companies.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which licenses nuclear facilities and uranium processing projects, has rejected all but one of the opposition’s claims and ignored the tribe’s ban during the appeals process. The NRC continues to stand by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which dictated that the federal government — not tribes, not states and not landowners — will have the final say on uranium processing and radioactive waste disposal.

Shuey doesn’t seem surprised: "We didn’t go into this with rose-colored glasses," he says. "The NRC lends notorious support to industry." Despite the long, exhausting, and expensive struggle, the opposition has barely influenced the mining proposal: "I don’t know what else I’d tell (other communities) in the same situation," Shuey says. "We couldn’t have ignored the NRC, because the company would be out there already."

The battle may be lost

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has repeatedly ruled that Hydro Resources’ proposal is safe for people and the environment. In 1998, the commission granted the company a license to begin mining at the four sites. The various appeals have delayed the process until now, but, according to NRC spokesman Dave McIntyre, it’s drawing to an end. "Once the Commission has issued its final rulings, and the staff and Hydro Resources have complied with the requirements," he says, "the license will become valid from NRC’s point of view." That’s expected to happen by next year.

The company will still have to jump through a few state and federal hoops. But once the NRC license goes through, it’s unlikely the Navajos can stop the mines from opening on their reservation.

Of course the fight could land in federal court; once the NRC approves the license, the tribe or activists could sue, although extensive litigation is beyond either group’s budget. But the courts could go either way: If the Navajos tried to enforce their ban and stop Hydro Resources’ project, the mining company could sue the tribe in return. Either way, it doesn’t look good for the Navajos, says J.D. Williams, an Oregon-based tribal attorney who specializes in energy issues. "After 16 years of Reagan and Bush (appointments), the federal courts have been stocked with Republican judges that are hostile to tribal jurisdiction and (rule) favorably for state jurisdiction," he says. "Usually, tribes lose these days."

There’s still hope for the tribe, however. For all the bluster behind the uranium rush, not much has actually happened. In western Colorado, a mine re-opened last year amid great fanfare to cash in on high uranium prices (HCN, 6/13/05: Uranium miners go back underground). Within months, it was shuttered again, its newly hired workers looking for jobs elsewhere. The economics just didn’t add up.

The author is HCN’s Southwest correspondent.

The following sidebar article accompanies this story:

Navajos pay for industry's mistakes - The federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was created to compensate uranium miners and mill workers sickened by their jobs, but on the Navajo Reservation, Dr. Bruce Baird Struminger says the program has proved flawed

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.

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